Print Craft: Apparel Decoration with a Cause
This New York organization is paving the way for not one, but two worlds: the print industry and the autism community.
Creating high-quality garments and positively impacting the lives of teenagers and young adults with autism go hand in hand at Spectrum Designs Foundation. The Port Washington, New York-based nonprofit not only screen prints tens of thousands of T-shirts for organizations like Autism Speaks, but also employs 65 teens and adults with autism.
Like so many charitable endeavors, Spectrum Designs traces its roots to one family’s actions in the face of adversity. After the sudden death of her husband, Stella Spanakos wanted to ensure that her son Nicholas, then a high school student with autism, had a community and an employer if anything ever happened to her. Employment can be a lifelong challenge for individuals on the autism spectrum; the majority of adults with the condition are unemployed according to a report from Autism Speaks, and some sources place the unemployment rate in the community as high as 80 percent. Spanakos teamed with Nicole Sugrue, a fellow “autism mom,” and Patrick Bardsley, a camp counselor at an autism camp Nicholas attended each summer, to address the problem. The three were searching for an industry that was sustainable, recession-proof, and structured enough to provide the stability that people with autism can thrive on. What checked off everything on their list? Decorated apparel.
In 2011, Spectrum Designs was born in Spanakos’ backyard barn. A skeleton crew of two teens produced a T-shirt proclaiming “I’m a Great Autism Mom” or “Proud Autism Dad” every 15 minutes with a Viper DTG machine, bringing in around $30,000 in gross sales the first year. By 2012, Spectrum Designs had created gainful employment opportunities for more than 20 teens with autism, and the Spectrum brand was expanded to include baking, laundry service, and urban gardening operations. In 2013, the apparel branch relocated to a 1500-square-foot location and invested in new embroidery, digital, and screen printing technologies to expand its decorating options.
And business has been booming: In 2016, Spectrum Designs had close to $1.5 million in sales and provided 7500 hours of paid employment for people with disabilities. The shop now has a ColDesi M2 DTG printer, a four-station Vastex V2000HD, a Vastex EconoRed II dryer, seven Geo Knight heat presses, and an M&R Diamondback C automatic. An hour after speaking with Screen Printing, the Spectrum team closed on a new 7500-square-foot building, which they’ll move into later this year. The move will allow for even more equipment, with the goal of doubling production capacity in screen printing and embroidery over the next year or two.
How has a little mom-and-pop shop grown into a business to be reckoned with in only a few years? “People started to fall in love with the story and the idea. It really took off,” says Spectrum Designs COO Tim Howe. While the company began by screen printing T-shirts for autism organizations, it didn’t take long for other Long Island businesses to catch wind of the new local apparel decorator with a cause.
One early client was Men on the Move, a large moving company. One of the company’s founders has a son with autism named Gregory, so Spectrum’s mission was an easily understood cause. Just like that, Spectrum went from producing one or two shirts at a time to fulfilling orders for dozens of shirts in every size. And even better? Gregory has now been employed at Spectrum for years.
Spectrum assigns jobs based on each employee’s unique abilities. Here, Pete performs the job of screen reclaimer. Courtesy of John Martin Photography.
Other local Spectrum clients include school districts, nonprofits, the autism community, and businesses including Neiman Marcus, Facebook New York, and Guitar Player magazine. “We have an NYU job coming up, and we’re doing some quarter zips for the 90th precinct of the NYPD,” adds Howe. “Picking up customers like that, big-ticket clients that people have heard of, lends supreme legitimacy to what we do.”
Many workers come to Spectrum through partnerships with local school districts. People with disabilities can stay in high school until the age of 21, with the last three years of secondary education focused on obtaining vocational placements. Spectrum offers real-world work experience to students for an hour or two at a time. The rest of Spectrum’s workforce is comprised of three full-time employees and 17 part-time employees. Spectrum pairs its staff members with employees from the Nicholas Center, an education-focused partner organization created by the Spectrum team and headed by Spanakos and Sugrue.
Consistency and behavioral rigor are the keys to Spectrum’s success as well as the engagement and continued happiness of its employees, says Howe. Each aspect of production, whether it be screen printing, embroidery, or DTG, has been broken down into parts so that employees have jobs that fit their unique abilities, such as loader, washer, burner, folder, packer, catcher, or emulsifier. Employees follow clear, photographed instructions so that they have a consistent and repetitive job that effectively contributes to the overall production process.
Noah trims cut-away backing after embroidery. Courtesy of John Martin Photography.
High Impact, High Quality
The biggest challenge Spectrum Designs faces is the perception associated with having a disabled workforce. Howe says that, very understandably, people wonder if the quality of the product will suffer because of the mission of the organization. Spectrum refutes this by following a code of extremely high quality control, paying special attention to “all of the regular things that happen during a screen print that sometimes you can get away with,” such as off-contact issues, Howe explains. Spectrum Designs works to not only provide jobs for people with disabilities, but also to champion its workforce’s ability.
Some of Howe’s favorite moments on the job come when clients don’t realize Spectrum is a nonprofit organization, or anything other than a typical shop. Spectrum has clients who choose the company simply because they’re nearby and can easily pick up their T-shirts. They work through the whole process with Spectrum’s customer service team and art department without realizing they are benefitting a company with a cause.
John hang-tags completed T-shirts. Courtesy of John Martin Photography.
For example, Guitar Player magazine placed an order for 10,000 shirts in two weeks without realizing Spectrum operates out of a 1500-square-foot facility. When the client came to pick up the shirts, she was blown away that the order was done on time. “That’s the moment,” says Howe.
Leading the Way
In the autism community, children are often the population that receives the most attention. But, as Howe points out, those kids will eventually grow up into adults, a shift that the autism community is working to address.
“Servicing the adult population and finding a niche for them is a huge deal,” says Howe. In the past, the work structure for people with disabilities tended to fall under what Howe calls “sheltered work” – 20 or 30 people with disabilities working together in a factory or shop with one nondisabled manager overseeing the group. But the focus is shifting to an integrated model that involves people with and without disabilities working side by side.
While other organizations have had to change or alter their structures with this goal in mind, Spectrum Designs was ready and waiting. Spectrum’s core tenets from the start – that all employees should make minimum wage or above, be integrated and part of a community, and help each other grow – lined up perfectly with the industry shift.
In other industries, successful businesses may keep their secrets close to heart. But in the autism world, everyone is working toward the same goal. Spectrum Designs is no different. The nonprofit keeps seeing exponential growth year after year, and is not afraid to share its successful business model with the community. As Howe says, Spectrum Designs serves as “a beacon shining toward the future.”
Read more from Screen Printing's June/July 2017 issue.